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Best Stretches & Exercises for Shoulder Bursitis

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT April 16, 2021 0 Comments

Shoulder bursitis is an orthopedic medical condition that is most common with repetitive motions (overuse) secondary to sports and aging. Ultimately, it can leave your shoulder feeling stiff, sore, and weak due to loss of function. If you’ve been diagnosed with shoulder bursitis, exercises can help alleviate pain, restore range of motion and build strength. The primary goal with any home program is to optimize mechanics to reduce strain on the affected tissues. Keep reading to learn the best exercises to help relieve shoulder bursitis pain.

How to Perform Exercises for Shoulder Bursitis

Start with exercises to restore flexibility and range of motion. Then strengthening exercises that focus on stabilizing the rotator cuff muscles and the muscles between the shoulder blades. Always use your symptoms and shoulder stability as a gauge for when you’re ready to progress with repetitions, resistance, and shoulder range.

First, let’s dive into a few dynamic shoulder stretches. You can find all three of these stretches demonstrated in the video below, plus a few others to try (if your symptoms allow).

1. Posterior Capsule Stretch

You can do this basic stretch anywhere- standing, sitting, waiting line at the grocery store, on a work break, etc. Make sure you aren’t forcing the stretch if you feel any pinching in your shoulder, as this can aggravate your symptoms. Over time, you will notice less stiffness in the back of your shoulder, which will help with your overhead shoulder mechanics.

  • Decide what shoulder you will be stretching
  • Bring the opposite hand across your body and rest it under your elbow that is bent to approximately 90 degrees
  • Keeping the upper arm at shoulder height (or just slightly below if needed), use your opposite hand to gently guide the arm across the body
  • Continue shifting until a strong, relatively pain-free, stretch is felt in the back of the shoulder
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets on each shoulder as needed

2. Behind the Back Stretch

The ability to internally rotate the shoulder can get seriously stiff with shoulder bursitis. However, stretching the shoulder in this direction can be tricky since it can also cause pinching. It’s always important to start slow and keep your posture as upright as possible while completing this stretch.

  • Bring your injured arm behind your back so that the back of your hand is resting on the top of your glutes
  • This may already be enough of a stretch, if so just simply hold, otherwise continue with the following steps
  • Bring your opposite hand behind your back as well and grab your hand that’s already resting there, your opposite hand should be now closest to your back
  • Now, use your opposite hand to gently pull your arms across your back
  • Continue moving until you feel a comfortable stretch in the front of the shoulder and hold
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets

For a stronger stretch, you can add a stretch strap and pull your hand up toward the shoulder blades (your opposite hand will be guiding from above this time). This will stretch a different part of the shoulder capsule and help to increase internal shoulder range of motion further. 

3. Child’s Pose Bilateral Shoulder Stretch

Getting on your hands and knees is a great way to use your own body weight to get a deep overhead shoulder stretch. If this stretch doesn’t feel comfortable, you can always use a pulley (see below) or lie on your back with a cane to stretch as well.

  • Start by getting in a quadruped position on your hands and knees 
  • Make sure the knees are directly under your hips
  • Start to shift your butt toward your heels as you reach your hands out further on the floor
  • Continue shifting until you have you feel a strong stretch, or your upper arms are in line with your ears (whichever comes first)
  • Hold the stretch for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets total

4. Bilateral Shoulder External Rotation with Scap Retraction

Grab a resistance band for this one. This is a great all in one exercise for addressing rotator cuff and shoulder blade stability at the same time. Since your arms are at your side it is also a very tolerable move. Being able to properly stabilize these muscles is important for decreasing strain on the irritated shoulder bursa.

  • Stand in good posture with your arms at your side, elbows bent to 90 degrees and palms facing up toward the ceiling
  • Hold the band in both hands at a resistance level that is manageable yet challenging
  • Tighten and squeeze the shoulder blades together as you pull your hands further apart
  • Keep the elbows tightly tucked into your side and neck relaxed throughout
  • Pull the arms apart as far as is comfortable before slowly returning to the starting position
  • Repeat 10-15 times for 2-3 sets

If this is too difficult or painful for your shoulder, you can downgrade to isometrics “pushing” exercises. This means you keep the arm still as you apply resistance with your opposite hand in various directions. When you’re ready to progress to other shoulder exercises with a resistance band, you can also try internal rotation, shoulder flexion, shoulder abduction, rows, and more (reference the exercise video listed above). 

5. Standing Active Assisted Shoulder Flexion with a Cane

As you gain flexibility with your stretches, it’s important to also progress your active shoulder range of motion that is pain free. This ensures that your muscles are strong enough to tolerate and stabilize the shoulder within the new range that you are gaining. Simple active shoulder motion in standing is a great place to start with the weight of gravity challenging you.

  • Stand comfortably and grab a walking cane, dowel, or broomstick
  • Hold the cane in your hands at shoulder width down at your thighs
  • Keep good upright posture and the neck relaxed as you lift both hands up toward the ceiling
  • Lift as high as is possible, slowly and with control
  • Then, return slowly to the starting position
  • Repeat 10-15 times for 2-3 sets total

With time, you can add weights or a resistance band and focus on one arm at a time. Other arm movements to try are shoulder abduction (out to the side) and shoulder scaption (at a diagonal). 

6. Wall Angels

 

This is a high-level exercise that focuses on building optimal coordination between the shoulder blades and shoulder joint with overhead movement. At first, this exercise can feel uncomfortable, and take some time to learn to do it correctly. With time, it will get easier as your shoulder muscles and scapular muscles adjust.

  • Stand against a wall with your feet 6-12 inches from the wall
  • Position yourself so that your entire spine is aligned with the wall and the back of your head is touching the wall (with your line of vision parallel to the floor), it’s okay if there is a small gap at your low back
  • Bring your arms up on the wall into a “touchdown” position while keeping them flat against the wall, the shoulders should be abducted and elbows bent to around 90 degrees each
  • For some, this may be enough of a challenge to hold, otherwise, continue with the next move
  • Keep your forearms parallel with each other as you slide your arms up the wall as high as you can while keeping good form (half an inch to several inches depending on your flexibility and strength)
  • Slide up and down the wall while keeping the neck relaxed
  • Repeat 10-15 times for 2-3 sets total

Tools to Help with Shoulder Exercises

There are a lot of great options for maximizing your shoulder bursitis recovery with the use of the right tools. They can help with everything from getting a deeper stretch to quicker strength. Below are a few of the best options for your shoulder rehab program.

Shoulder Pulley

 

This basic rehab tool can be found in every physical therapy clinic. The shoulder pulley is a great versatile tool for comfortably boosting your shoulder’s flexibility. It is essential if you are recovering from shoulder surgery or severe pain that limits your ability to actively move your shoulder. It can also help prevent or treat a frozen shoulder. Simply close it in a door and set yourself up in a chair underneath it. Use your uninjured arm to guide the injured arm passively into limited ranges. With time, you will notice a big difference and you can decrease the amount of assistance you need from the opposite arm.

Pedal Exerciser

While a pedal exerciser may be traditionally used for leg movement and strength, it can easily be used for the arms too. Simply place it on a surface that is between hip and chest height and place your hands in the pedals. Turn the pedals backwards or forwards while keeping good posture. This movement helps warm up and loosen the shoulders by boosting circulation and tissue extensibility.

Resistance bands

This low cost and low profile tool is a must have for a shoulder rehab program. It’s always best to start with a light resistance band with arm exercises at your side. Then, with time progress the resistance and range of motion you are working through. You can get as simple or complex as you want with this flexible tool.

Stretch strap

A stretch strap is also a very versatile tool for shoulder flexibility. It is especially important for anyone that is significantly limited in their shoulder range of motion. Use it to guide your shoulder into hard-to-reach ranges while still being able to stay relaxed- a key to effective stretching. You could even use it for isometric strengthening too (using your muscles without having to move the joint).

Foam Roller

A foam roller can be used for many different purposes when it comes to shoulder recovery- from massage to stretching and core stability. One of the most effective uses of the foam roller with a shoulder injury is to lie on your back and mobilize the mid-back on the roller horizontally. This helps improve shoulder mechanics by maximizing posture. For other great upper body ideas, look below. 

Movements to Avoid

What movements you should be avoiding is dependent on what stage of recovery you are in and your fitness level. Ultimately, your symptoms will dictate what you should and shouldn’t be doing. Yet, some moves are more aggravating than others and can lead to a rotator cuff injury or tendinitis. These are the moves to keep in mind.

  • Repetitive overhead reaching
  • Overhead throwing
  • Heavy lifting, particularly anything that strains the rotator cuff
  • Arm exercises with the thumbs pointing down, such as an upright row, to prevent unnecessary shoulder impingement
  • Tricep dips
  • Any movement that feels unstable or painful

Tips for Before & After Exercises

To maximize your exercise routine, there are a few simple things to keep in mind. They will help boost your recovery and keep you feeling your best. Follow these tips:

  • Warm-up the arms with gentle stretching or rhythmic motion for up to 10 minutes
  • Before stretching, alleviate shoulder pain and stiffness with heat 
  • Stretch your shoulder before strengthening to maximize your tolerance for active range of motion
  • Alleviate any onset of pain after exercise with ice, TENS, and use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) as needed
  • Always focus on good posture with daily activities and while exercising to reduce pinching in the shoulder 
  • If you’re feeling unsure or don’t know where to start, talk to a physical therapist for a high-quality personalized program

What to Expect

With a proper home exercise program, you can expect gradual progress and reduced symptoms with consistency. Depending on the severity of your shoulder bursitis and other underlying issues, you can expect better-managed symptoms or even a full recovery. That means more time doing the sports and activities that you love.

If your symptoms are getting worse or affecting your quality of life, get in touch with your orthopedic doctor or trusted healthcare provider immediately for further medical advice.

Resources:

https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=zp4394

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320495#_noHeaderPrefixedContent

https://www.choosept.com/symptomsconditionsdetail/physical-therapy-guide-to-shoulder-bursitis

https://rollinghillsmedical.com/shoulder-tendonitis-exercises-to-avoid-fastest-recovery-treatment/

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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